Chapter Three

Confined to her bed, Lauren didn't attend the Christmas Eve festivities last night and would miss the celebration again today. She had no one to blame but herself.

"Someone will check on you every hour," her aunt had said. "No sense arguing, Dr. Phillips left strict instructions you're to stay abed for three days."

Her sister, Wanapaya and their children had ridden into the ranch yesterday. This afternoon, the Gatlins would arrive to share in the merriment.

Muttering to herself, Lauren tossed back the covers and walked to the window. "The doctor isn't here now so I'll damn well do as I please."

Snowflakes fell from the sky and melted against the windowpane. She loved the holidays, yet couldn't dispel the persuasive gloom of last summer. They'd lost so many loved ones when the Sioux revolted, Uncle Mason, Polly's husband, Sam, their little daughter, Minnie and... Brand, or so everyone said. "Where are you? What happened to you, Brand?"

She hadn't seen Creed since he rescued her in the woods. He hadn't come to visit Finn during her convalescence, but sent a curt note to Estelle: Keep the women near the ranch. I found moccasin tracks in the woods.

He'd dropped her off at Full Circle like a sack of barley and returned to the spot he found her half-frozen in the snow. The man infuriated her. Only Creed dared to send written orders to her aunt. If he had something to say about her, why didn't he say it to her face? She sighed. For the same reason my tongue stops working every time he walks into a room.

Biddle bustled through the door with the copper tub. "I be back soon with hot water, Missy. Your aunt told me—"

"Poor old man, I drag you to another state and now you're stuck with another bossy woman."

Biddle flashed a smile. "Doan mind none 'cept for the cold weather."

She watched him hobble from the room and turned back to the window. Biddle had served her father for years, was chosen to accompany her to Minnesota because of his loyalty to the entire McCain family.

Nelly entered the room on Biddle's heels with two pails of steaming water. Nearing thirty years of age, Daphne's daughter was an attractive woman. Tall and wiry, she was blessed with caramel-colored skin, delicate features and full pink lips. Raised with Lauren at Grand Cove in the Carolinas, at times they were more like sisters, and fought like them too. For a servant, Nelly wasn't shy about speaking her mind, especially when it came to Lauren's business.

Once she left the room, Lauren undressed and sank into the warm, sudsy water with an appreciative sigh. She thought about her life while lathering the cotton washrag. Since arriving at Full Circle eighteen months ago, one nasty debacle after another had entered her life; some of which she had to take full responsibility for. She shouldn't have married Brand, but having a baby out of wedlock was out of the question. Creed, Finn's father, vacillated between love and hate for her, and she dreaded the day she'd have to tell her son that Creed, not Brand, was his real father.

Damnation, she should have stayed in Beaufort, chin up and miserable. The dark cloud pestering her for days resurfaced. She stood on the lip of a faulty precipice about to tumble into oblivion. Her life would change again and she couldn't do a thing to stop the avalanche from tumbling down the mountain.

The minutes ticked away on the mantle clock while she soaked. When the water cooled, she rose, stepped from the tub and slipped into a clean nightshift. Sleigh bells rang sharp from the yard below. She rushed to the window again, recognized the Gatlin family and said their names aloud: Polly, Martha, Jack, Belle, and Emily. She should have expected Creed would be a no-show.

About to climb into bed again, she took a last look over her shoulder and her heart thumped. In the distance, a lone rider came into view, his, dark hair and black hat a stark contrast against drifts of snow. Creed. Here to see his son. Would he bother to climb the stairs to see how she fared?

"Aren't you supposed to be in bed?"

Lauren spun around, relieved to see her sister, Sage. Heavy with her third child, the old adage was true—a woman embodied contentment while carrying a babe. "I imagine I can expect Aunt Estelle next. Biddle, Nelly and Father have been here this morning. We might as well put a sign outside the door: Enter here, circus freak on display."

Sage smiled and led her back to bed. "Oh, come now, one more day and you'll be free to do as you please." She tucked the sheets and blankets around her.

Glasses clinked and laughter floated up the stairwell. "I'm missing all the festivities. Last night they opened gifts and today Daphne and Nelly are serving wild turkey, cranberries and berry pie."

"I'll bring you a plate and won't forget a thing, promise."

"Send Miss-Know-It-All-Nelly up with my food. I don't want you traipsing up and down the stairs in your condition."

Her sister giggled. "The day before I arrived at the ranch, I went hunting with Wanapaya. I don't think a set of stairs will do me in."

"Sit." Lauren patted the mattress. "I have something to tell you about Father."

Sage eased her cumbersome body down. "And I have something to tell you, but you go first."

"For starters, he's selling Grand Cove to our neighbor, Mrs. Weatherbee." A wave of nostalgia washed over her. "The residents of Beaufort refer to her as the old dour-faced widow. She's had her eye on the plantation for years."

"Selling his home? What does he plan to do then?"

"I'm glad you're sitting down."

Sage's brow creased. "That bad?"

"Not bad, but his news complicates matters." Lauren clasped her sister's hand. "He's marrying Polly in the spring."

"Your mother-in-law!"

Lauren snorted. "Yes, and soon my stepmother. Yours too."

"Oh, dear."

"That's all you have to say, 'Oh, dear?'"

"He's happy about getting married again?"

"'Third time is the charm,' he said.'" Lauren shook her head. "He plans to tell everyone tonight, but wanted us to know first."

"Thank you for telling me. I know little about him yet, but what I do know, I love. Are you all right with this?"

Lauren looked toward the window with a shrug. "I have no idea what I'm all right with anymore."

Sage brought her chin around with a gentle finger. "This should cheer you up. Creed asked about you."

"He did?"

Sage nodded. "I heard him ask Aunt Estelle if he could visit you for a spell."

Arms came out from the covers as she rose into a sitting position. "Fetch my brush from the bureau, and a mirror. Tell the truth, Sage, do I look a fright?"

Sage eased off the bed, walked to the chest and returned with the mirror and brush. "I've never seen you lovelier. Now will you calm down? All this excitement is not doing your head injury any good. Here," her sister took the brush from her hand. "Let me do it."

"What else did Creed say? How does he look?"

"He's spending time with Finn, and he looks the same as ever—mysterious and ungodly handsome."

Lauren's stomach flipped. "I wish I hadn't asked."

"Don't be a ninny." Sage stepped back to admire her handiwork. "There. No man, including Creed, could resist such beauty."

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